The Federal Communications Commission has levied its largest fine ever against a Florida-based robocall network responsible for nearly 100 million calls over the last three months of 2016.
The agency on Thursday proposed a $120 million fine against Adrian Abramovich of Miami, Fla., alleging his operation, doing business as Marketing Strategy Leaders, made 96 million spoofed robocalls during the period in which the FCC investigated. Of those calls, about 90% were made to wireless phones, with 10% to landline phones.
The calls used "neighborhood spoofing" technology to include local area codes and the first three numbers of the recipient's own phone number to encourage people to answer the calls.
Upon answering, recipients would hear a recorded message asking them to press 1 to hear about vacation deals from travel companies such as Marriott, Expedia, Hilton and TripAdvisor. Callers were then transferred to call centers in Mexico, where live operators would try to sell them vacation packages at Mexican timeshare facilities not affiliated with the companies in the recorded messages.
"Unfortunately, many unsuspecting Americans are deceived into taking the bait," said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Abramovich "found it profitable to send to these live operators the most vulnerable Americans, typically the elderly, to be bilked out of their hard-earned money," he said. "Many consumers spent from a few hundred up to a few thousand dollars on these “exclusive” vacation packages."
This robocall network also disrupted an emergency medical paging provider, he said. By overloading that paging network, Abramovich could have delayed medical care "making the difference between a patient’s life and death," Pai said.
Robocalls rank as the top consumer complaint received by the FCC, the officials said. "I wish I could promise the American people that today's action will put an end to all unwanted, and as this case makes apparent, dangerous, robocalls," said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. "Sadly, this notice addresses only a fraction of the 2.6 billion robocalls (according to the YouMail Robocall Index) ... made in the month of May."
But the proposal of the largest fine in FCC history, she said, "shows just how serious we are in stamping out the largest spoofed robocall campaign we have yet to investigate."
Abramovich is charged with violating the Truth in Caller ID Act, which prohibits the deliberate falsification of caller ID information to defraud and harm consumers. In the FCC's first action against a large-scale spoofing operation, the agency verified more than 80,000 calls during the last three months of 2016.
The FCC also issued a citation for apparent violations of robocall limits and federal wire fraud to Abramovich. He has 30 days to respond to the charges. Attempts to reach Abramovich were unsuccessful.
TripAdvisor helped spur the investigation after having many customers calling the travel company complaining about calls offering travel deals. Since the company does not have a telemarketing services, TripAdvisor's own Internet fraud team investigated and turned over its findings to the FCC, said Adam Medros, the company's senior vice president for products.
"Because of the FCC’s prompt action leveraging TripAdvisor’s initial investigation, we believe millions of consumers will be free from these robocalls and will be better protected from others attempting similar tactics in the future," Medros said in a statement.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.